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Espionage

Boris Johnson accuses Russia of stockpiling nerve agent

At the same time, his own Foreign Office says tests to verify Britain’s claim that the nerve agent was Russian will take two weeks

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 March, 2018, 10:58pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 March, 2018, 11:08pm

Britain’s foreign secretary said on Sunday that he has evidence Russia has been stockpiling a nerve agent in violation of international law “very likely for the purposes of assassination”.

Boris Johnson said the trail of blame for the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the English city of Salisbury “leads inexorably to the Kremlin”.

His comment came after a Russian envoy suggested the toxin used to poison the Skripals could have come from a UK lab.

Johnson told reporters that Britain has information that within the last 10 years, “the Russian state has been engaged in investigating the delivery of such agents, Novichok agents … very likely for the purposes of assassination”.

He claimed that “they have been producing and stockpiling Novichok, contrary to what they have been saying”.

Johnson said he will brief European Union foreign ministers on the case Monday before meeting Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.

He also said officials from the Netherlands-based Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) would arrive on Monday in Britain to take samples of the nerve agent said to have been used to poison the Skripals.

Britain says it is Novichok, a class of powerful nerve agent said to have been developed in the Soviet Union towards the end of the cold war.

Tests to independently verify the British findings are expected to take at least two weeks, Britain’s Foreign Office said. However, the OPCW has previously said the properties of Novichoks are unknown and they may not even exist.

Vladimir Chizhov, Moscow’s EU ambassador, said Russia has no chemical weapons stockpiles and was not behind the poisoning.

“Russia had nothing to do with it,” Chizhov told the BBC.

Chizhov pointed out that the UK chemical weapons research facility, Porton Down, is only 12km (eight miles) from Salisbury, where Sergei Skripal – a former Russian intelligence officer convicted in his home country of spying for Britain – and his daughter were found on March 4. They are still in critical condition.

Asked whether he was saying that Porton Down was responsible, Chizhov replied: “I don’t know.”

The British government dismissed the ambassador’s suggestion as “nonsense”.

Johnson insisted it was “not the response of a country that really believed itself to be innocent”.

Britain and Russia have each expelled 23 diplomats, broken off high-level contacts and taken other punitive steps in the escalating tit-for-tat dispute, which appeared to have no effect on Sunday’s presidential election in Russia, with President Vladimir Putin widely expected to win a fourth term.

Johnson said Britain’s National Security Council will meet this week to discuss what further measures the country might take.

He said these could include “defending ourselves against cyberattack [and] looking at any economic measures that could be taken against Russians who corruptly obtained their wealth”, measure that appeared unrelated to the poisoning.

Russia’s ambassador in London, Alexander Yakovenko, called for “cooler heads”, telling The Mail on Sunday that the dispute is “escalating dangerously and out of proportion”.

But Russian presidential contender Ksenia Sobchak, a former television star who is the only candidate to openly criticise Putin, said blame did not lie entirely with Britain.

“We don’t have any improvements, everything is only getting worse,” she said. “And this will continue, because this is our foreign policy: very aggressive and very unpleasant.”